Il Passero solitario
D'in su la vetta della torre antica,
Passero solitario, alla campagna
Cantando vai finchè non more il giorno;
Ed erra l'armonia per questa valle.
Brilla nell'aria, e per li campi esulta,
Sì ch'a mirarla intenerisce il core.
Odi greggi belar, muggire armenti;
Gli altri augelli contenti, a gara insieme
Per lo libero ciel fan mille giri,
Pur festeggiando il lor tempo migliore:
Tu pensoso in disparte il tutto miri;
Non compagni, non voli,
Non ti cal d'allegria, schivi gli spassi;
Canti, e così trapassi
Dell'anno e di tua vita il più bel fiore.
Oimè, quanto somiglia
Al tuo costume il mio! Sollazzo e riso,
Della novella età dolce famiglia,
E te german di giovinezza, amore,
Sospiro acerbo de' provetti giorni,
Non curo, io non so come; anzi da loro
Quasi fuggo lontano;
Quasi romito, e strano
Al mio loco natio,
Passo del viver mio la primavera.
Questo giorno ch'omai cede alla sera,
Festeggiar si costuma al nostro borgo.
Odi per lo sereno un suon di squilla,
Odi spesso un tonar di ferree canne,
Che rimbomba lontan di villa in villa.
Tutta vestita a festa
La gioventù del loco
Lascia le case, e per le vie si spande;
E mira ed è mirata, e in cor s'allegra.
Io solitario in questa
Rimota parte alla campagna uscendo,
Ogni diletto e gioco
Indugio in altro tempo: e intanto il guardo
Steso nell'aria aprica
Mi fere il Sol che tra lontani monti,
Dopo il giorno sereno,
Cadendo si dilegua, e par che dica
Che la beata gioventù vien meno.
Tu, solingo augellin, venuto a sera
Del viver che daranno a te le stelle,
Certo del tuo costume
Non ti dorrai; che di natura è frutto
Ogni vostra vaghezza.
A me, se di vecchiezza
La detestata soglia
Evitar non impetro,
Quando muti questi occhi all'altrui core,
E lor fia vóto il mondo, e il dì futuro
Del dì presente più noioso e tetro,
Che parrà di tal voglia?
Che di quest'anni miei? che di me stesso?
Ahi pentirommi, e spesso,
Ma sconsolato, volgerommi indietro
La sera del dì di festa
Dolce e chiara è la notte e senza vento,
E queta sovra i tetti e in mezzo agli orti
Posa la luna, e di lontan rivela
Serena ogni montagna. O donna mia,
Già tace ogni sentiero, e pei balconi
Rara traluce la notturna lampa:
Tu dormi, che t'accolse agevol sonno
Nelle tue chete stanze; e non ti morde
Cura nessuna; e già non sai nè pensi
Quanta piaga m'apristi in mezzo al petto.
Tu dormi: io questo ciel, che sì benigno
Appare in vista, a salutar m'affaccio,
E l'antica natura onnipossente,
Che mi fece all'affanno. A te la speme
Nego, mi disse, anche la speme; e d'altro
Non brillin gli occhi tuoi se non di pianto.
Questo dì fu solenne: or da' trastulli
Prendi riposo; e forse ti rimembra
In sogno a quanti oggi piacesti, e quanti
Piacquero a te: non io, non già, ch'io speri,
Al pensier ti ricorro. Intanto io chieggo
Quanto a viver mi resti, e qui per terra
Mi getto, e grido, e fremo. Oh giorni orrendi
In così verde etate! Ahi, per la via
Odo non lunge il solitario canto
Dell'artigian, che riede a tarda notte,
Dopo i sollazzi, al suo povero ostello;
E fieramente mi si stringe il core,
A pensar come tutto al mondo passa,
E quasi orma non lascia. Ecco è fuggito
Il dì festivo, ed al festivo il giorno
Volgar succede, e se ne porta il tempo
Ogni umano accidente. Or dov'è il suono
Di que' popoli antichi? or dov'è il grido
De' nostri avi famosi, e il grande impero
Di quella Roma, e l'armi, e il fragorio
Che n'andò per la terra e l'oceano?
Tutto è pace e silenzio, e tutto posa
Il mondo, e più di lor non si ragiona.
Nella mia prima età, quando s'aspetta
Bramosamente il dì festivo, or poscia
Ch'egli era spento, io doloroso, in veglia,
Premea le piume; ed alla tarda notte
Un canto che s'udia per li sentieri
Lontanando morire a poco a poco,
Già similmente mi stringeva il core.
By Giacomo Leopardi
Translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi.
498 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $35.
In one of his notebooks from 1820, Giacomo Leopardi, the greatest Italian poet of the 19th century, wrote that “it is not enough to understand a true proposition; one must also feel the truth of it.” Writers of the Romantic age are supposed to make such statements. Theirs was the era of “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and “the holiness of the heart’s affections.” Coming from Leopardi, however, that credo can seem a little peculiar. Stunted by scoliosis, wearied from melancholy and badgered throughout his 38 years by his mother, a reactionary marchesa who stormed around the family palazzo in her riding boots, Leopardi was never an adventurer of felt experience. He spent most of his life confined by his parents to their home in the provincial hill town of Recanati, nestled above the Adriatic Sea.
The air of disappointment that hangs over Leopardi’s biography colors his poetry too. His great love poems tend toward unrequited and otherwise unacknowledged adoration. His odes on Italy portray a fallen nation, one from which everything genuine seems to have disappeared. In Leopardi, beauty and grandeur always fade toward the horizon.
But this sensation of distance turns out to be part and parcel of the poet’s genius. The 41 poems in Leopardi’s collected “Canti” are distinct, and beautiful, for dwelling on a threshold between feeling and thought, between the sensuous world and the mind, between presence and absence. Like no other poet, Leopardi captures the subtlest sensations, just before they vanish. His language itself works as a vanishing act: it serves up all the richness of antiquity — gained from years spent steeping in Horace and Virgil — even as tones of skepticism and bitterness begin to eat away at that richness.
What makes Jonathan Galassi’s translation of Leopardi’s poetry so superb is that he understands, and renders, that delicate movement of thought and feeling. Galassi, the author of a magnificent translation of Eugenio Montale’s poetry as well as two collections of his own poems, brings Leopardi’s “Canti” alive by virtue of a flexible and unpretentious English idiom. Galassi, who is also the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, strives for accuracy throughout, but above all he works to make his translations living poems. The diction in these versions rightly conjures the 19th century, but never smells of the wax museum.
Certainly, Leopardi is himself a virtuoso of shifting tones. From poem to poem, he runs the entire vocal range, from public outrage to private murmur. In “On the Monument to Dante Being Erected in Florence,” for instance, he addresses the sad state of Italy after the Napoleonic era. Here, he memorializes those Italian soldiers, conscripted into Napoleon’s army, who died during the 1812 invasion of Russia:
Squad after squad they fell,
half naked, mangled, bloodied,
and the ice became a bed for their poor bodies.
And as they breathed their painful last
they recalled the mother they had longed for,
saying: Not clouds and wind, but iron
should have killed us, and for you, our country.
The willful excess and anguish in these lines, and their resistance to the conventions of public elegy, show a poet who can be downright ferocious. In his attempt to honor the soldiers, Leopardi gives shape to righteous indignation with a skill matched in the period only by the Shelley of “England in 1819” and “The Mask of Anarchy.”
Leopardi writes just as impressively in quieter tones. Take the opening of the love poem “Aspasia”:
Sometimes your image comes to mind again,
Aspasia. Either it shines fleetingly
in lived-in places, in other faces;
or in the empty fields, on a clear day,
under the silent stars,
as if evoked by gentle harmony,
that exalted vision reappears
in a soul still verging on dismay.
This passage balances, gorgeously, on the border between adoration and loss. Galassi conveys the tremble between opposing emotions with delicacy and strength. The subtle rhyme of “clear day” and “dismay,” for example, underlines that central duality.
Translation is always an imperfect art. Even Marlowe’s Ovid and Pope’s Homer sacrifice aspects of their originals as they cross into English. Does Galassi lose anything of Leopardi’s Italian?
Well, maybe. There are times when an otherwise admirable steadiness erases nuances of diction and verse movement. In one of Leopardi’s most famous lyrics, “To the Moon,” the poet describes how the image of the moon floated in his eyes, as his tears rose (“mi sorgea sul ciglio”). The Italian beguiles with its precision: ciglio means “eyelash.” In Galassi’s version, the image becomes low-res, and conventional: the moon appears “swimming in my eyes.”
In another of his best-known poems, “Infinity,” Leopardi offers one of the most stunning line breaks in the history of verse. As he looks out from a hill in Recanati, the poet claims he can see “interminati / Spazi.” Galassi renders the phrase with accuracy and naturalness as “unending spaces,” but he loses that enjambment, which in the original not only describes but enacts a moment of utter breathlessness.
These are quibbles, and even as I mention them, the feeling of nitpicking turns into that particular, bitter sensation of eating crow (perhaps a good meal for any critic). The strength of Galassi’s versions, after all, lies in their pliancy. These are not “free” translations, but neither are they “literal” versions in the academic sense. Galassi avoids showing off his own chops, but he also knows that loyalty to every phrase, to every effect of line and sentence, often drags translators into a ridiculous Esperanto. Galassi attends to precise features of the Italian with scholarly care; in fact, the notes to this edition are themselves an impressive accomplishment. More important, though, he offers his readers real poems in English, poems with sinew and pulse.
The publication, at last, of a definitive English version of the “Canti” should constitute an event in itself. But this book does something even greater. For several generations now, Italian poetry has existed for readers and writers of English more as a rumor than an inspiration. Mark Strand, Rosanna Warren and Charles Wright are among the very few contemporary American poets, for example, who have taken the full measure of Leopardi. Now, he may become as important to our own literature as, say, Baudelaire or Rilke, poets of comparable genius, whose work has long been available in fine translations.
During a 1960 interview, Eugenio Montale claimed that “after Leopardi it was practically impossible to write verse for the whole rest of the century.” Certainly, for Italian poets, Leopardi must have cast a long shadow. We live in another time and place, though, and because no serious contemporary poet would imitate the surfaces of the 19th-century master, his influence has the chance to run much deeper. The history of literature itself depends on such mysterious connections. When the otherwise authoritarian Count Monaldo Leopardi opened his library to his preadolescent son, and allowed the boy to spend whole days there, that small permission changed world literature for good. Who knows? The next great American poet may be a high school girl in Wyoming lucky enough to come across Jonathan Galassi’s translation in her own school library.